Ellen Desmond examines Ireland’s sex laws and asks if the right measures are being considered.
Recently, the Irish Government committed to introducing new laws surrounding the purchase of sex; this upcoming Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill intends to target the business model of prostitution.
If successful, the Bill in question would also see the legal pressure shift from the sex worker to the buyers of sex. In many cases, the buyers are those fuelling crimes and violence against sex workers, and their business allows pimps and traffickers the opportunity to do the same.
Currently, the purchase of sex is technically not illegal in the Republic of Ireland, nor is it illegal to sell sexual services. It is, however, an unusual law as many of the activities related to prostitution are seen as public offences. For example, brothel-keeping and curb-crawling are outlawed in Ireland.
In 2008, it became illegal to buy sex from someone who had been trafficked. However, there is concern that this may be interpreted loosely or easy to find a loophole to.
Laws surrounding prostitution are difficult laws in a moral sense, as well as because of the ripple effect any decision will have on vulnerable women. While it is one of the most exploitative industries in the world, and a patriarchy-infused institution that takes women’s rights for granted, to ban it outright ultimately affects many of the vulnerable women who sell sex as their livelihood.
The reality is that prostitution is happening, and it’s not going to stop anytime soon. Lawmakers need to realise and acknowledge that in their considerations.
Controversy: Amnesty’s New Policy
Amnesty International recently voted on how they would campaign on the Government’s proposed plans to criminalise the purchase of sex. The agreed upon resolution was in the works for two years and recommends that Amnesty develops a policy that supports the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work.
“Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse. Our global movement paved the way for adopting a policy for the protection of the human rights of sex workers which will help shape Amnesty International’s future work on this important issue,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
This decision allegedly does not go against Amnesty’s ongoing efforts to tackle exploitation and trafficking, and takes the welfare of many voices into account. In support of Amnesty’s decision, sex worker Catriona O’ Brien recently spoke out on Twitter and in the media. She wrote in the Irish Times about the danger criminalising the purchase of sex has on those it aims to protect: “The Norwegian police told Amnesty they use condoms as evidence of sex work when seeking prosecutions. This is dangerous, as workers stop using condoms for fear it will result in police interrogation or the arrest of clients.”
There are fears that prostitution could become more violent if a buyer is threatening a sex worker to keep quiet about reporting an incident. There are also those who argue that working in brothels at the very least guarantees the women some protection and support, but these laws could make buyers avoid brothels even more and potentially place women in dangerous circumstances.
However, Amnesty has faced much backlash for this decision from prominent women’s rights and anti-trafficking activists. Among them, Mary Crilly, director of the Cork Sexual Violence Centre, has renounced her membership and support of Amnesty – as she firmly believes that men should not be given the right to buy sex. Perhaps most noticeably, Ruhama (a group supporting women affected by prostitution) denounced Amnesty’s decision.
Would decriminalising buyers increase trafficking?
One of the most prolific anti-trafficking groups, the Turn Off the Red Light campaign, believes that decriminalising the buyers of sex would increase trafficking, and so they and their 73 partners oppose Amnesty’s view and support the government’s plans.
“We have been greatly encouraged by the level of local support and are now calling on politicians from all sides to unite and send out the message loud and clear that Ireland is no longer a soft target for pimps, traffickers and thugs.”
The Turn Off the Red Light campaign believes that if prostitution was really a choice, it would not be those with the fewest choices available to them who are disproportionately in prostitution. “Such choices are better termed survival strategies,” they say. In other words, they believe it is the buyer of sex who is given all the choice in the situation and so they should be criminally responsible.
“Once prostitution is legalised, pimps become legitimate businessmen, and the predatory purchase of another person for sex is now a legitimate business transaction. Women in prostitution should not be punished for their own exploitation.”
The Turn Off the Red Light campaign, and many former prostitutes and survivors of exploitation, fight for a law similar to that in Sweden. Among the most outspoken of them are Mia de Faoite who believes that the seller of sex should be decriminalised, and pimps, buyers, procurers, brothels or other sex businesses should be the ones to be criminalised. Adopting a law that secures this would be similar to the law currently in practise in Sweden. The Swedish see prostitution as institutionalized sexual oppression or as a human rights violation.
Arguably, the majority of voices in this debate care deeply about human rights. Despite the controversy surrounding Amnesty’s decisions, Amnesty International have always been at the forefront of the fight for human rights. The varying opinions of people with the same long term ideals and beliefs is what makes creating and acting on prostitution laws so difficult and so dangerous.
So, where does the safekeeping of the most vulnerable come into it all? According to the Turn Off the Red Light campaign (and cited in various other sources), 75% of women in prostitution became involved when they were children. 70% have spent time in care and 45% report experiencing sexual abuse during their childhoods. Once involved in prostitution, 9 out of 10 surveyed women would like to exit but feel unable to do so.
Rachel Moran’s book Paid For investigates and records an experience of prostitution at length. Though many activists do not see eye to eye with Moran, Paid For is a key source when considering what will best protect those in most need of help and security within the sex industry: the women.
Exploitation and trafficking aren’t going to be eradicated simply as a result of either the criminalisation or decriminalisation of any aspect of prostitution. In Moran’s book, she points to something that has not been discussed at all during this debate; finding viable alternatives for those in need and tackling the problem from its inception.
She writes: “I hope I live to see government-funded prostitution alternatives programmes every bit as accessible to women as prostitution is, because only in a world like that would women and girls like my teenage self experience some of the ‘choice’ the world keeps telling us about.”